There has been a deluge of ultra-luxe, extra-old Scotch whiskies lately: whiskies that are 30, 40 and, in some cases, more than 50 years old – with all the luxurious packaging and high prices that entails. The received wisdom is that older whiskies are better, which is not necessarily true. Just like people, whiskies reach their peak at different stages in life. A touch of oak character can give a whisky complexity, structure and texture. But left in the cask too long, it can become unpleasantly tannic and lifeless. Striking the right balance is a real art.
The Singleton 53-year-old is a malt that pulls it off. Laid down in 1964 in Dufftown, Moray, in a single American-oak hogshead, it is the oldest whisky ever released by Diageo (the Scotch giant that owns Johnnie Walker and 30 distilleries). Singleton’s characteristic charm is still there, but it’s matured: the tropical fruit is crystallised, almost like a sauternes. The creaminess has turned nutty and floral notes more spicy, like Jamaican ginger cake. There are 117 bottles, each at a whopping £26,400 (justerinis.com).
Another fine superannuated whisky is the 40-year-old, 200th-anniversary edition from Brora, a cult “silent” distillery in the northeast of Scotland that was decommissioned in 1983 (but, joy of joys, will be resurrected in 2020). Made in 1978 when Brora was experimenting with heavily peated barley, this golden single malt has a fine, peppery sootiness that mingles beautifully with more typically “Brora” notes of hay, jasmine and scented wax. The understated packaging is also extremely dignified. There are 1,819 bottles at £4,500 (thewhiskyexchange.com).
Older still is the 62-year-old Mr George Centenary Edition, a grand old malt bottled by Gordon & MacPhail from the stocks of the Glen Grant Distillery. Aged in sherry rather than ex-bourbon casks, it’s big and rich, packed with chewy dates, fig rolls, molasses and sweet tobacco. The finish is long, with notes of creamy praline and coconut. There are 235 bottles, priced at £5,000 (gordonandmacphail.com).
Some argue the trend for super-luxe limited editions risks pricing “real” whisky lovers out of the market. Craigellachie’s answer was to make its ultra-rare 51yo available to taste for free at a touring pop-up, accessed by ballot (if you can’t make the final stop, South Africa, get the stunning Craigellachie 23yo – £384 from masterofmalt.com).
Others say it encourages “flipping”: snapping up a newly released limited edition and sticking it back on the market 24 hours later at a massively inflated price. I’m of the view that whisky should be enjoyed rather than invested in. So if you buy one of these this Christmas, my advice would be: gather all your best friends, pour everyone a dram and then throw the cork away.
Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles.